Feature

The IRS’s Tea Party crackdown

The Obama administration was scrambling to distance itself from a growing scandal at the Internal Revenue Service.

What happened
The Obama administration was scrambling to distance itself from a growing scandal at the Internal Revenue Service this week, after it was revealed that the agency had singled out Tea Party–affiliated groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. President Obama called the IRS’s focus on conservative groups “intolerable and inexcusable,” and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the FBI and Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation into the actions of IRS employees. An inspector general’s report said problems at the agency began in 2010, when IRS employees in Cincinnati started screening for the terms “Tea Party” or “Patriots” in the titles of groups seeking to qualify as “social welfare” organizations. Unlike charities, tax-exempt social welfare groups are allowed to participate in politics so long as that is not their primary purpose. IRS demands for extensive paperwork about Tea Party applicants’ activities forced them to wait up to three years for tax-exempt status, while liberal groups were approved in as little as nine months.

The report concluded that the targeting of conservative groups was the result of a confused staff seeking shortcuts and of inadequate oversight, with no orders from above. That did little to curb Republican suspicion that the IRS had used its powers for political purposes. Both the House and Senate were preparing to hold hearings. “Someone made a conscious decision to harass and hold up these requests for tax-exempt status,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner. “My question is, who’s going to jail?”

What the editorials said
The IRS’s campaign was clearly aimed at “stifling political activity” that threatened its White House masters, said The Wall Street Journal. Many groups singled out for extra attention in the middle of the 2012 campaign were forced to hand over reams of information—including lists of volunteers and donors, and copies of speeches. This is “a very big deal.” Did low-level employees in Cincinnati really decide to do all this on their own?

The IRS made an “inexcusable mistake” by singling out conservative groups, said The New York Times. But “there is no evidence President Obama knew about the audits,” and the agency should examine any group seeking social welfare status, since that tax-exempt status is so often abused. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, for example, has spent tens of millions on behalf of Republican candidates, yet claims to not be political. Unfortunately, this scandal will make it vastly more difficult for the IRS to stop such exploitation of the tax code.

What the columnists said
The IRS has a long history of being used as a political weapon, said James Bovard in The Wall Street Journal. President Franklin Roosevelt used the agency to bully newspaper owners opposed to his New Deal, while President Nixon directed the IRS to “screw” some 10,000 “subversive” individuals and groups, ranging from anti-war activists to the John Birch Society. History suggests that in this latest IRS scandal, “we may have only seen the tip of the iceberg.” It’s possible the IRS bureaucrats “thought they were just doing their patriotic duty,” said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. After all, prominent liberals portrayed the Tea Party “as an expression of crypto-fascist, crypto-racist rage,” rather than legitimate citizen activism.

There’s a simpler explanation for why Tea Party groups were targeted, said Alec MacGillis in NewRepublic.com. “These groups were proudly political!” The movement’s “whole purpose from the get-go was to orient American politics and government toward its constitutional roots by intervening in elections at all levels.” That mission likely made IRS workers doubt whether these groups met the criteria for tax-exempt status.

This scandal, and the ongoing furor over Benghazi, means nothing will get done for the rest of Obama’s second term, said John Dickerson in Slate.com. The administration will be swamped with endless congressional hearings. And any Republicans who try to sell their constituents on the merits of a bipartisan immigration or budget deal will be asked why on earth they’re negotiating with a president whose tax enforcers target conservatives. It’s going to be a long three years.

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